If you’re looking to push your medical degree even further, there are many programs across the country that will allow you to pursue a PhD in conjunction with your MD. Obviously, this involves more time in school and a lot more work (typically a significant amount of research in addition to patient care). But for those with specific career goals, an MD-PhD is an excellent choice and very much worth the extra time and effort.
Think of an MD-PhD holder as more of a physician-scientist. They are fully qualified to care for patients in the setting of any given specialty, but they also have the ability to pursue interests in clinical research and academic medicine as well. While an MD program is 4 years of school before heading off to residency and fellowship, an MD-PhD program is 7-8 years long before residency. Students complete almost all of the same pre-clinical coursework as their non-PhD peers and take Step I and Step II along with everyone else. Individual curriculums may vary among different programs, but most of them offer research electives and protected academic time that is integrated into the typical medical school pre-clinical and clinical curricula.
A general timeline looks something like this: 2 years of pre-clinical courses that cover basic clinical sciences, graduate coursework and dissertation research and defense culminating in the completion of a PhD, and 2 years of clinical rotations to complete an MD. Considering that most independent PhD programs take 6 years or so to complete, an MD-PhD program does offer an opportunity to attain a PhD much more quickly than if you chose to do each degree individually.
In addition to the typical residency options that MD students have, MD-PhD’s also have the opportunity to apply to “research residency” programs—these programs allow you to complete general residency training in a chosen specialty with postdoctoral research and protected time for academic activity baked in.
After school and residency is all done, an MD-PhD holder generally spends a great deal, if not the majority of their professional life working in research and academia. If patient care is your primary interest, then this probably isn’t the path for you. If you have an interest in research but don’t want it to be the primary focus of your medical career (or if you’re not sure), then perhaps a better option is to apply to 4-year MD programs but be clear about your interests and see which programs offer the kind of academic support and mentorship opportunities that you think will help you achieve your goals.
If you finish a 4-year program and want to keep at your research in residency and fellowship, you can likewise target post-graduate programs that have special opportunities or a focus on academic and research medicine—and you can do this with pretty much any subspecialty. If you decide to continue pursuing academic medicine after you’ve completed residency, then it’s definitely possible to go after a PhD further down the road.
If you are passionate about research and academic medicine and feel that an MD-PhD may be right up your alley, definitely investigate individual programs and see if any of them seem to align with your individual goals.